It’s July 2004, nearly 70 years after Robert Johnson’s brief studio time, and Columbia/Legacy is putting out King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 2 on CD for the first time. This disc, in combination with the first volume from 1998, contains all of Johnson’s musical production, barring the outtakes on 1990’s The Complete Recordings box set from Sony. It’s been a newsworthy year for Johnson, showing up in books and in a legal dispute over who his true heir is. For blues fans, it’s been the same old—this release is just the second half of those sessions that got many of us into the blues to start with.
Johnson’s become such an icon by this time that it’s impossible to receive him without any baggage. It’s seemingly not so much a Benjaminian argument about art and mechanical reproduction as it is that Johnson himself just is everywhere. He disappeared for a stretch, but then a bunch of British guys in the ‘60s made sure that no rock or blues fans could ever forget him. Many of his songs have been continually reinterpreted, sometimes well (Cream, Freddie King) and sometimes not so well (Clapton’s Me and Mr. Johnson from this year). Johnson was a short-lived Delta bluesman who’s made his way through the musical hubs at Chicago and London and most points in between.
With the release of these 16 songs, reactions are pretty predictable. For Johnson fans who don’t have the tracks, it’s a disc necessary for filling out your collection. For those who could do without the hellhounds, trouble women, and alcohol, it’s easily passed over as it’s not much of a further reflection on his work. As to the question of whether or not this disc is better than its predecessor, the answer is that it’s neither. It’s more Johnson, and you probably know just what that means.
This collection does offer us the opportunity to stop and reassess our views—to see if we’ve really been hearing what we’ve been told we’re hearing for all these years. In his 1975 book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus dedicated a chapter to Johnson’s life and music, making him the symbol of American desolation and depression, as well as the advance scout of spiritual and musical limits. Marcus claims that Johnson “remains the most emotionally committed of all blues singers.” That statement’s so hyperbolic that it hardly needs to be debated, but I have to agree that there is something special in Johnson’s vocals. He’s not always singing—there’s a range of moaning, hollering, and talking that isn’t that stylistically different from his predecessors or his descendants, but that is extremely effective. The challenge lies in separating our response to the music from our response to the myth. Would Johnson’s music be this disturbing without knowledge of the myseriousness of his life—the lack of a birth date, the soul-selling, the death by poisoning or stabbing? What Johnson is, more than a blues artist, is an embodiment of frightening possibilities.
Not everyone, of course, has been swept away by the Johnson aura. Chuck Eddy’s just bored by him, writing in The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll that his songs “all seem to last forever.” He goes on to say that Johnson “didn’t have a magnificent sense of rhythm or melody, either.” With this new release, Johnson has 16 tracks with which to present his case. He doesn’t dance around and off the beat like the great jazz singers, but he does play some driving beats, and I’ll take “Preaching Blues”, “Rambling on My Mind”, and “They’re Red Hot” as three varied examples of Johnson’s skill with rhythm. On the issue of melody, I think Eddy’s absolutely right, but I don’t think it matters. Johnson doesn’t perform music that depends on melody any more than, say, hip-hop. Johnson’s compositions depend on tension, mood, dynamics, and delivery. He handles those elements brilliantly.
It’s easy to forget about Johnson’s technical skill on the guitar until you listen to him anew. Guitarists like Eric Clapton have rendered many of these stylings almost cliche, but when you go back to the original recordings and realize that all this sound comes from one person, it’s mind-blowing. He plays the guitar perfectly off his voice, and likewise fits his lyrics into the picking that’s both steady and furtive. It’s no wonder rock’s early guitar heroes looked to these performances for inspiration.
In the end, I suppose we’re right back where we started. We’re still tangled up in what we bring to the music, but that’s part of the fun of listening to Robert Johnson. I’d try to straighten the situation out a bit, but I kind of like standing in the fog near the end of a ghost story.